By Sue Ingebretson
Did you know that your sense of smell is sometimes called, the “express train to the brain?” For those with fibromyalgia and chronic illness, this may seem more of an irritation than a blessing. Our heightened ability to sniff out smells usually lends itself to unpleasant odors rather than delightful aromas.
Unlike any other sense, the sense of smell has a direct, one-step connection to the emotion centers of the brain. In this article, I’d like to highlight additional important, yet little known facts about your sense of smell and the role it plays in your healing journey.
It’s well understood that fibro folk are hypersensitive to varying degrees to sights, sounds, touch, and smells. We’re also hypersensitive to the foods we eat, the medicines we take, and the health and beauty products we apply to our skin. As mentioned above, when it comes to our olfactory prowess, many of us are more annoyed than impressed. This over amplification of unpleasant odors in particular, creates a negative response in the body. This kinesthetic (body) connection goes deeper than you may recognize.
First, it’s important to understand the inner workings of this vital sense.
A Scent’s Impact on Brain Chemistry
It may surprise you to learn that you actually have “…about 450 different types of olfactory receptors. What people think of as a single smell is actually a combination of many odor molecules impacting a variety of these receptors.” (1)
When an odor is detected, it immediately binds to the receptors and then creates an electrical signal to the brain. This signal is then analyzed for interpretation. Is the smell pleasing, offensive, or even dangerous? All of this interpretation is done so rapidly that it precedes thought. The body has the signal to act (if necessary) before it even has time to think.
It’s interesting to note that the chemical signal sent to the brain from the olfactory system goes directly to the limbic system. Therefore, natural and healing scents such as pure essential oils – not synthetic and artificial scents – have a direct impact on the amygdala (part of the limbic system). The amygdala stores memories and emotions and is also responsible for the stress response.
According to Dr. Alan Hirsch of the Smell and Taste Treatment Center and Research Foundation of Chicago, “Essential oils can have some very profound physiological and psychological effects because the limbic system is directly connected to those parts of the brain that control heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, stress levels, hormone balance, and memory.”
He goes on to say, “Fragrance chemicals easily alter the brain's neurochemistry and smells can change a mood state faster than anything else.” (2)
Did you catch that?
Fragrance chemicals can change moods faster than anything else. It’s no wonder the sense of smell is called the express train to the brain. You may have already experienced this speedy reaction without even being aware of it.
Have you ever smelled perfume, a flower, or even kitchen cooking scents and felt transported back in time? A whiff of Chantilly can bring to mind your grandmother’s house or a favorite primary school teacher. The scent of flowers can remind you of childhood homes or vacations. They could also link to positive memories of specific events where they were present.
How Businesses Hijack Your Hunger and Moods
The above information on the power of scent isn’t lost on big business. The psychology of smells is widely known to affect marketing and sales. Did you know that large corporations, including Disney, use scents to encourage specific shopping behaviors?
When strolling down the main street of Disneyland, you can enjoy the compelling scents of vanilla and the distinct smell of warm, freshly baked ice cream sugar cones. The existence of a Smellitizer (3) brings this to you through vents strategically located in areas that benefit from your increased sense of hunger.
Disney theme park adventures also engage your sense of smell to conjure up powerful feelings of happiness and excitement. In some of these rides, you can smell orange blossoms, ocean breezes, and fresh cut grass.
This circumstance is so familiar in my neck of the woods (Southern California) that more than one person has smelled the fragrant blooms on my abundant citrus trees and exclaimed, “Oh, it smells just like Disneyland!”
Sad, but true.
But let’s look at it from a logical aspect. I don’t begrudge big business using delicious and delightful smells to make me feel good. Even the ones geared to make me hungry don’t bother me as my awareness gives me options. It means that I can choose my dietary purchases based on my own plans. But it does bring up an interesting subject. If corporations can hijack our moods and desires using our sense of smell, can’t we use the same method for our own benefit? We’ll address this interesting notion shortly.
Fibromyalgia and Hypersensitivity
Discussions of hypersensitivity in the fibromyalgia and chronic illness communities are common. We’re well aware – maybe too aware – that we’re very sensitive to sounds, touch, lights, and smells. We’re extra sensitive to what we take into our bodies, too. We’re sensitive to foods, chemicals, lotions, shampoos and more.
The systemic dysfunction of chronic illness is detailed in this article, “Do You Have These Fibromyalgia Symptoms of Systemic Dysfunction?” where you can view over five dozen symptoms of dysfunction. Hypersensitivity to smells is simply one of many. However, as we’ve noted, it’s a very powerful symptom. Many of us have what could be referred to as a super power when it comes to sniffing out the good from the bad.
Aromatherapy for Fibromyalgia
There’s a very important distinction to make here when it comes to our smelling super power. Our nose knows the difference between smells that may benefit us and smells that do not.
Have you ever felt nauseous or headachy from one of those candle or body lotion stores at a mall? The quantity and combination of scents is to blame as well as the source of the scents. Here’s a comparison. Imagine putting on an expensive set of high definition headphones and hearing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a bagpipe trio, and the Rolling Stone’s Paint It Black – all at once. You may like any or all of these compilations, but hearing them played simultaneously would be highly annoying – even to those without chronic illness.
This is what it’s like to overwhelm our sense of smell.
Now, let’s get to the source. The actual chemical make-up of the scent matters. Artificial chemicals and manufactured synthetic scents can be obnoxious and offensive to our highly refined sense of smell.
Some of the greatest offenders to our heightened smelling super power come from:
- Candles and scented melting wax
- Carpet and furniture deodorizers
- Room deodorizers and sprays
- Detergents, soaps, and scrubbing products
- Cleaning and polishing products
- Perfumes, colognes, and body sprays
- Dryer sheets and scented laundry products
- Shampoos, conditioners and hair products
- Lotions, skin care, and beauty products
- Nail polish, remover, and artificial nail products
- Paints, solvents, lacquers, refinishing products
- Herbicides/Pesticides, plant sprays, plant powders
It pays to pay attention to these products. Do your best to purchase varieties that have fewer ingredients and ones that come from natural sources.
The Dark Side of the Perfume Industry
If a manufactured product is scented, it likely contains artificial fragrances. These are added – sometimes in high quantities – to mask the smell of the chemicals in the product itself. Unfortunately, many cleaning supplies, laundry detergents, and air fresheners are not required to list ingredients (including artificial fragrances) on their labels.(4)
The fragrance industry is rampant with these artificial and synthetic chemicals. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), “A rose may be a rose. But that rose-like fragrance in your perfume may be something else entirely, concocted from any number of the fragrance industry’s 3,100 stock chemical ingredients, the blend of which is almost always kept hidden from the consumer.” (5)
Regarding the perfume industry specifically, the EWG has this to say, “To protect trade secrets, makers are allowed to withhold fragrance ingredients, so consumers can’t rely on labels to know what hazards may lurk inside that new bottle of perfume.” (5)
Scents as Therapy
Before you feel like holding your breath, I’m pleased to share that there is good news.
As I mentioned, the nose knows the difference. Our olfactory gland’s innate intelligence can differentiate between artificial smells and real, natural, and potentially healing smells.
Plants and flowers provide us with an abundance of pleasing as well as healthy scents. When particular plant materials are distilled and concentrated, the resulting product – essential oils – carries therapeutic benefits.
For more ways to enjoy the therapeutic benefits of essential oils, check out this article, “Aromatherapy for Fibromyalgia Support.”
NOTE: Just as we’re each sensitive in different ways to foods, lights, sounds and touch, we also have personal preferences to natural scents. You may not enjoy the scent of patchouli (for example) or you may love it. To each his own. If you feel that you’re over-reactive to essential oils as well as to artificial scents, try exposing your environment to small quantities of one essential oil at a time. Or work with an aromatherapy practitioner to see if there are preferred selections that may work for you.
Scents to Trigger Memory and Mood
Earlier we discussed the use of scents to trigger positive memories. These can be used by marketing companies to influence shopping behaviors, including hunger and impulse purchases.
The key point to focus on here is impulse. This means that a scent can influence behavior in an instant. Studies reveal that some essential oils have been shown to reduce anxiety while boosting a sense of calm and tranquility. (6)
Would you like to instantaneously boost your mood?
Try the uplifting scents of peppermint, lavender, or cinnamon. Or, sample the “happy” citrus scents of bergamot, lemon, grapefruit, and orange. While there is a plethora of scents to try, it’s a good idea to begin with the basics.
Diffusing these and other essential oils can provide a split-second mood boost. Use a countertop diffuser, a personal hand-held diffuser, a diffuser necklace, or simply take a whiff from the bottle. It doesn’t have to be complicated.
Single oil scents can be very beneficial as well as essential oil blends. To begin your personal experiments with blends, combine just two or three oils at a time. For example, my favorite “good mood” blend is orange and peppermint or spearmint. Or try something completely different. Add cardamom to cinnamon for a sweet and spicy scent that may remind you of holiday baking in the kitchen.
Essential oil blends may be flowery, woodsy, fruity, spicy, or minty.
Specific scents can also trigger a stronger sense of memory, focus, and concentration. According to researchers at Northumbria University in Newcastle, U.K. rosemary essential oil can improve memory and recall by up to 75%. (7)
Could you use an emotional boost or a stronger sense of focus?
Which scents will be first on your list to try?
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Sue Ingebretson (www.RebuildingWellness.com) is becoming the most sought after symptom-relief expert in the fibromyalgia and chronic illness communities. She’s known for getting to the root of her client’s health challenges and delivering long-term results using a light-hearted approach without quick-fix remedies that only mask symptoms.
Her #1 Amazon best-selling chronic illness book, FibroWHYalgia, details her own journey from chronic illness to chronic wellness. She is also the creator of the FibroFrog™– a therapeutic stress-relieving tool which provides powerful healing benefits with fun and whimsy.